Stetson Opens Tampa Campus

The satellite location opens Thursday, serving part-time law students and the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
Published January 12, 2004

[Times photo: Thomas Goethe]
The satellite location of Stetson University College of Law resembles the Gulfport main campus with its Spanish Mediterranean architecture. Construction delays have pushed back the school's opening to Thursday.

TAMPA - On Thursday, for the first time, students will begin earning law degrees at a campus in Hillsborough County.

That's the day the Stetson University College of Law swings open the doors of its new campus on Tampa Street just north of Interstate 275.

The facility, known officially as Tampa Law Center and Campus, will become the first satellite operation for a law school in Florida and one of the first in the nation, school officials say.

The three-story building resembles Stetson's Gulfport campus, with Spanish Mediterranean architecture and a watchtower.

Workers are still putting the finishing touches on the building, and the landscaping hasn't been completed. But the law school's interim dean, Darby Dickerson, is sure the building will be ready for Thursday's opening.

"Having a physical presence in Tampa is very important to us," Dickerson said. "It will allow us to establish links to Tampa's businesses and the legal community that are hard to make from across the bay."

Stetson began searching for a location for a satellite campus several years ago.

The school paid $1.6-million for the property and for the city to tear down the old police station that stood there for years. The school poured another $9.8-million into building costs.

Construction began a year ago. The building was scheduled to open last Thursday, but some last-minute construction prompted Dickerson to delay the event for a week.

The campus was the dream of former dean Gary Vause, who died of cancer last year. The atrium of the new building will be named after Vause at a ceremony in February.

"He was a big reason why this happened," Dickerson said.

The first would-be lawyers to make use of the new campus will be the 130 students in Stetson's part-time law program, which began in 2002 for students who work during the day or have family obligations.

The part-time class is expected to grow to 250 to 300 students in the next two years. They tackle the same curriculum as the school's 765 full-time law students, but the program takes four years instead of three and most of the classes are at night.

At first, they'll take about 20 percent of their classes at the Tampa campus and the rest at the law school's main campus in Gulfport.

Dickerson has hopes that more of the classes will eventually be taught in Tampa. She said the accreditation agency set the number of classes that could be offered away from the main campus.

"Right now, we are a guinea pig for part-time law programs at satellite campuses," Dickerson said. "Eventually, we might be able to offer two-thirds of the classes in Tampa."

The part-time students will share the three-story building with the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which will rent office space and use the courtroom and law library.

Half of the appellate court's 14 judges will work out of the Tampa location, said Chief Judge Chris Altenbernd, who expected to move out of the Hillsborough County Courthouse on Jan. 20.

"There is still some work to be done on the building," Altenbernd said. "Our fingers are crossed."

Around the country, it's one of the first campuses to mix a law school and appeals court in the same building.

The courtroom will pull double duty, with real cases heard during the day and student mock trials at night.

Altenbernd and Dickerson hope the setup creates a synergy that enriches both institutions.

Altenbernd said he looked forward to brainstorming with school officials "to make each of us better and stronger."

"I would be very surprised if my staff isn't anxious to stay after work to participate with the students' classes," he said.

The campus will also have another new resident in the next few years. The Hillsborough County Bar Association plans to build a new headquarters on the property.

The campus could also support three more buildings and a parking garage, said Stetson spokesman Frank Klim.

"Those plans are not definite," Klim said. "But we have been approached by other courts and legal organizations."